The two mayoral candidates in Rockville’s Nov. 5 election are optimistic about the city’s new vote-by-mail system, but one is worried about security flaws could allow voter fraud.
For the first time, the city of 68,000 will hold its nonpartisan municipal elections by mail, with every registered voter receiving a ballot in the mail. Alternatively, voters may cast their ballots at City Hall on Election Day.
Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton said in an interview Monday that she worries about the potential harm of “ballot harvesting” — a practice in which a third party delivers a ballot on someone’s behalf. Ballot harvesting typically occurs for absentee voting or other situations in which ballots are mailed.
Newton, first elected in 2013, is running for a third term. After serving a two-year term, she was reelected to a four-year term in 2015, following a decision by the mayor and council to change the length of terms from two to four years.
Newton is running with a slate of four candidates that includes incumbent Council member Beryl Feinberg; Monique Ashton, a public relations executive and coordinator of the Richard Montgomery High School cluster; Suzan Pitman, formerly the president of the East Rockville Civic Association; and Kuan Lee, an attorney and board member of the Rockville Sister Cities Corp.
Opposing Newton in the mayor’s race is Council member Virginia Onley.
Onley is running on a “Team Rockville” slate that includes incumbent Council member Mark Pierzchala; Cynthia Cotte Griffiths, executive director of a free legal services clinic for immigrants; James Hedrick, a finance specialist at the Federal Housing Finance Agency; and David Myles, a pediatrician and former Navy veteran.
Also, running for a council seat is Brigitta Mullican, a retired federal government employee and a member of several Rockville volunteer boards.
Residents may vote for candidates either individually or as a slate.
Maryland election law allows a “qualified applicant” to pick up and deliver a ballot. The person must be at least 18 years old and not be a candidate on the ballot. Any voter assistance must be approved by the voter in writing under penalty of perjury.
Ballot harvesting is legal in Maryland and other states, but there have been documented cases around the country in which it has led to voter fraud, said Rockville City Clerk and Director of Council Operations Sara Taylor-Ferrell.
Taylor-Ferrell said the mayor and council raised the issue at their July 15 meeting due to allegations of voter fraud in a congressional race in North Carolina last year.
In that race, a victorious North Carolina Republican candidate was accused of hiring a political operative to withhold ballots from minority voters by refusing to deliver them to election offices, as reported by The Associated Press. The state board of elections later refused to certify the results and called for a special election, which will be held Sept. 10.
“That’s not really ballot harvesting,” Taylor-Ferrell said in reference to the North Carolina case. “Ballot harvesting is different from voter fraud.”
Taylor-Ferrell said the city attorney must draft a proposed ordinance first, clarifying distinctions between terms found in state election law and how they apply to Rockville.
“You can’t impede the voter by not allowing them to have a designated agent to help with their ballot pickup or return. We need a real clear understanding of what ballot harvesting is and what a designated agent is and what voter fraud is,” she said.
Jared DeMarinis, the director of candidacy and campaign finance for the Maryland State Board of Elections, said Tuesday that any time designated agents deliver a ballot on someone else’s behalf, they must fill out an affidavit and return it along with the ballot.
The goal, he said, is to “create a chain of custody” that tells elections officials “from pickup to drop off who was touching this ballot.” DeMarinis was not sure how many documented cases of voter fraud had arisen from this system for absentee voting.
Joanne Antoine, the executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, said the organization supports Rockville’s vote-by-mail initiative.
“We believe that it makes our elections more accessible to everyone. We have calls from everyone who have difficulty getting to the polls. This makes it more accessible for everyone, especially those who have disabilities or other difficulties getting to the polls,” she said.
Antoine said her organization supported legislation at the state level last year that would have commissioned a study of vote-by-mail. Sen. Ben Kramer, a Wheaton Democrat, sponsored the bill, which failed.
“We’re gonna be looking at Rockville to see if there are any security concerns, but it looks like the local board of elections is doing everything they can to ensure it’s a secure one,” she said.
Antoine, however, acknowledged that voting by mail, in general, has flaws.
“I can drop my ballot off in the mailbox right now, and if someone tampers with it, there’s no way I would know or someone from the state board of elections would know,” she said.
Newton said the city attorney’s office is to report on the issue to the mayor and council at its Sept. 9 meeting on how to implement safeguards against fraud. Representatives from the city attorney’s office could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.
Newton added that there are plenty of situations in which authorizing an agent to deliver a ballot on someone’s behalf is acceptable, such as for the elderly or people with disabilities.
“That is totally understandable. What we’re talking about are attempts to control someone’s decision and make it your own,” she said.
Newton said she is worried there isn’t enough awareness about the city’s new voting system.
“I’ve come across several people who know about vote by mail and several people who are surprised,” she said. “I’m not sure we’re doing enough. We’re concentrating on social media and some internal methods, but I’m not sure the greater news is out there.”
Onley said everyone she has encountered while campaigning has been excited about the vote-by-mail system.
“You won’t have to worry about working in Virginia and making it back to Rockville by 8 p.m. It takes all that stress away from voting, so I’m very excited about that,” she said.
Others, Onley said, have told her that they are pleased they will not have to leave the house if there is inclement weather or are more comfortable voting without having to wait in line.
“Just about everywhere I go and every resident I speak with says, ‘I want to talk about the vote- by-mail.’ So people are excited. The buzz is everywhere,” she said.
Asked about ballot harvesting, Onley mentioned the North Carolina case, but said she isn’t worried about it being an issue in Rockville.
“I’m not too concerned about that. Hopefully, we will have people who really want to participate in a fair election process. There are always people who are going to do illegal things, so that’s always a concern if you have any kind of process,” she said.
Onley said she “trusts that the voters in Rockville will do the right thing.”
“I trust that if someone has a great-grandparent, they will slip their ballot in the mail and it won’t be a big deal. It’s their relative,” she said.
Both Newton and Onley remain optimistic that vote-by-mail will increase turnout from a rate of 16% in the most recent election. Newton said there are “kinks” that need to be smoothed out first.
“With any new process, there’s always new things you learn along the way,” she said.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org